By Robert Barnes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
PITTSBURGH, Oct. 27 -- The presidential candidates pursued votes in the same battleground states on Monday but entered their final week of persuasion with messages that could scarcely be more different in tone and substance.
Sen. Barack Obama began offering voters here and in Canton, Ohio, a "closing argument" that sounded much like the opening argument he made when he began his campaign nearly two years ago. It was an expansive, lofty call that emphasized economic revival, played down partisan politics and conjured up an image of election results that could "change the world."
Sen. John McCain, campaigning in Ohio, made clear he would appeal to pocketbook concerns and depend on a tried-and-tested tactic of portraying his Democratic rival as a tax-and-spend liberal. He touted his experience and urged voters to look past Obama's speechmaking skills.
"I know it's pleasant to listen to Senator Obama's rhetoric, but look at the record," McCain said. "This is the fundamental difference between Senator Obama and me. We both disagree with President Bush on economic policy. The difference is that he thinks taxes have been too low, and I think that spending has been too high."
Later, appearing in Pottsville, Pa., McCain said Obama "is running to be redistributionist in chief. I'm running to be commander in chief. Senator Obama is running to spread the wealth. I'm running to create more wealth. Senator Obama is running to punish the successful. I'm running to make everyone successful."
McCain's remarks showed the steep climb he faces in a contest that has turned almost singularly on the nation's faltering economy. Americans overwhelmingly blame Bush and his administration for the crisis, and McCain has struggled to separate himself from his fellow Republican.
Obama made clear he was not about to help McCain make the case.
"After 21 months and three debates, Senator McCain still has not been able to tell the American people a single major thing he'd do differently from George Bush when it comes to the economy," Obama told a capacity crowd at the Canton Memorial Civic Center. "Not one thing."
The contrasting statements were essentially a summation of the messages that will dominate the end of the campaign. It is a battle that will be fought almost exclusively in states that powered Bush's reelection in 2004 and reinforces the notion that McCain must win almost all of them to claim the White House.
His campaign has identified Pennsylvania as the largest Democratic state it hopes to flip. But polls show the front-running Obama with a substantial lead here, and he is taking the fight to McCain -- just to begin the week, hitting Ohio, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina, all states Republicans have counted on.
McCain's comments on the economy came in a speech before about 100 supporters, added to his schedule at the last minute and after a meeting with his economic advisers.
He pledged to do three things as president: protect investments, rescue the housing market and lower taxes to spur job creation.
"I have been through tough times like this before, and the American people can trust me -- based on my record and results -- to take strong action to end this crisis, restore jobs and bring security to Americans," McCain said. "I will never be the one who sits on the sidelines waiting for things to get better."
In the speech, he condemned talk by congressional Democrats of another economic stimulus package, calling it a "spending spree" by the "dangerous threesome" of Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). It is a theme Republicans plan to press hard in the closing days.
Obama's speech had been planned for days, and senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said it would serve as the basis for the Democrat's appeal until the end of the campaign.
Told that the themes sounded similar to Obama's campaign announcement 21 months ago, Axelrod replied: "I think consistency is a good thing."
Obama's message centered on change -- he mentioned the watchword of his candidacy 18 times in Canton and used "hope" half as many times -- and he told his partisans that their work will pay off soon.
"Pittsburgh, I've got two words for you: One week," he told supporters at a hockey arena that is home to the Pittsburgh Penguins. "We are one week away from bringing change to America."
Obama's speech amounted to a 30-minute compilation of the themes he has accentuated throughout the long campaign: reaching out to disaffected voters, a call for personal responsibility and an acknowledgment that government should not try to solve "all our problems."
Obama's remarks were studiously nonpartisan -- on the rare occasions when he mentioned Democrats and Republicans, it was only to dismiss the importance of those labels. He is loath to acknowledge McCain's point that Obama's election would give Democrats control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a prospect not likely to appeal to independents.
Instead of partisan appeals, Obama returned to the themes that fueled his surprising campaign.
"Hope! That's what kept some of our parents and grandparents going when times were tough," Obama said to cheers and applause. "What led them to say, "Maybe I can't go to college, but if I save a little bit each week my child can go to college; maybe I can't have my own business, but if I work really hard my child can open one of her own."
Obama said one of the Bush administration's great failures was to squander the country's goodwill and sense of community.
"That's what's been lost these last eight years -- our sense of common purpose, our sense of higher purpose. And that's what we need to restore right now."
He added: "The question in this election is not 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' We all know the answer to that. The real question is, 'Will this country be better off four years from now?' " Although the economy is the focus of his speeches, some of the greatest applause came for the issue that first propelled his candidacy.
"It is time to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a huge surplus," Obama said. "As president, I will end this war by asking the Iraqi government to step up, and finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11."
Obama at times seemed to vacillate between preparing the crowd for his presidency -- "It's not going to be easy, it's not going to be quick" to turn things around, he said -- and worrying about overconfidence among his supporters.
"Don't believe for a second this election is over," Obama told the crowd in Pittsburgh. "Don't think for a minute that power will concede anything. We have to work like our future depends on it in this last week, because it does."
Shear was traveling with the McCain campaign.